Contents Disappointed Utopia 5. Thought in Motion

Laughter and recognition

The conference proceedings went by in a largely tranquil, orderly fashion. Many of the talks were basically rough drafts, destined to be revised later into publishable texts. The questions from the audience were frequent and, in my view, largely generous. I remember asking someone why they used the word “man” (homme) to refer to people in general. I do not remember the answer, except that I don’t think I found it entirely satisfactory.

After the conference, our anxiety dwindled. We changed the subject. We relaxed. The ritual was over. On the train back to Paris, I found myself sitting with Ishmael, Marcel, and a female philosophy student, Ariane. I started reading a philosophy paper called “Towards Materialism,” which had inaugurated a small neo-Althusserian research group in Paris called the “Materialist Research Group” (Legrand and Sibertin-Blanc 2007). But I soon discovered that the Materialist Research Group represented something that my friends Marcel and Ishmael could not stomach. To my surprise, they seized the document from me and began to read it out loud, erupting every sentence or two into an outpouring of laughter.

The Althusserian text in question began by criticizing the metaphor of a “philosophical toolbox.”
Marcel: The toolbox.
Marcel: Faint laughter.
Ishmael: Bad metaphors. Metaphors that wore out their impact. Metaphors that wore out their impact.
Marcel: Soft giggling, punctuated with high pitched squeals.
Marcel: They didn’t even make a paragraph.
Marcel: High pitched laughter like the cooing of doves
[overlapping, confused voices]
Ishmael: “In returning to the 1960s” — it’s one of those Althusserian things: you’re always going backwards, but at the same time you always justify yourself before the godfather. […]
Marcel: Even if — they won’t quarrel, they won’t quarrel with any theorists, so they had to mention them in bulk — it’s already four lines of this stuff!
Pause, room noise.
Marcel: Sibilant burst of laughter exploding from mouth like a spray.
Marcel: Sorry!
Ishmael: Well, they adore — look at how they put together the sentence: you get this far and you forget it’s a question and that there’ll be a question mark at the end!
Marcel: Soft high-pitched laugh-squeal.
Ishmael (reading the first sentence of the text): “What is at stake for us [Marcel laughs under breath], at this preliminary stage, in returning to this period of the 1960s, to the re-readings of, and stances towards the Marxist corpus that took place then, and to the stance towards it that we in turn have or could have?”
Laughter breaks out like a little accordion, at first in a rapid beat of notes, then slower. Overlapping laughter.

I suspect that the extreme mockery was partly a reaction against the sense of scrutiny that Marcel and Ishmael had faced earlier that weekend. Our philosophical talks had been performances that exposed us to the risk of becoming objects, in the face of the judgmental subjects in the audience, which included senior philosophy professors from the Department. Perhaps when Marcel and Ishmael redirected criticality towards someone else and away from themselves, they were returning to being subjects and not objects.

The laughter was very joyful, but one might also call it harsh, because it was desubjectifying. It made their disciplinary others into sheer types. It stripped away agency, individuality, originality, and intellectual self-determination from the “Althusserians.” The “Althusserians,” meanwhile, were associated with a much more prestigious institution than Paris 8, the Ecole Normale Supérieure at the center of Paris. In laughing at the Althusserians, Ishmael and Marcel inverted the reigning institutional hierarchy. Meanwhile, as this critical comedy took place, Ariane sat next to us listening. Ishmael and Marcel did not solicit her input; on the contrary, she became a spectator. Of course, I was a spectator too, but as a foreign ethnographer, I was not always expected to have anything to say.

Who gets recognized, and on what terms?

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